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20-40-60 Etiquette: Deciding how much food to prepare for a cocktail party

QUESTION: How do you figure out how much food to fix for a cocktail party? I did not invite them for dinner, just drinks at 5 p.m. And I cut the number in half, so I only invited 20 people.

CALLIE’S ANSWER: Cocktail parties are hard, because a lot of people will stay into dinner time and not leave. I would try to have a variety of foods and enough to fill you up if you’re drinking a lot.

LILLIE-BETH’S ANSWER: I never know, and I always err on the side of having too much food in case people linger. Ask a caterer or a restaurant that caters if you know someone you can call for advice. (And if you do call, be sure to order one of your dishes from them or pay them for the consult.) Since it’s before dinner, you’ll want to offer some heavier options to guests, perhaps a dish that include meats or cheeses. If I were guessing, once I plan my menu, I would try to have enough of each item offered to serve everyone one or two servings per item and offer around three separate items. It depends on what you serve. I would ask experts just to be sure. Crackers and a dip also will get you far. Some will take none of one dish, and some will take more than one. If you are worried about having too much food, then make dishes that you would enjoy as leftovers or that you can freeze.

HELEN’S ANSWER: Know your crowd. Are they coming from work? Did they have a late lunch? Is it all women? All men? Six to eight bites per hour per person seems to be the logical planning number for a cocktail party, and people will eat more of the more popular foods like cheeses, meats and shrimp.

This is a great party to have at 5 p.m., especially since you are not providing dinner. They can have a couple of drinks, visit with friends, and go home or out to dinner.

GUEST’S ANSWER: Dave Cathey, The Oklahoman’s Food Editor: A good rule of thumb is to prepare 8 servings per person — five servings for the first hour and three servings for the second.

Since 2009 Callie, Lillie-Beth and Helen have written this generational etiquette column. They also include guest responses from a wide range of ages each week. So many years later, Callie is 20-plus; Lillie-Beth, 40-plus and Helen, 60-plus. To ask an etiquette question, email